No Cranes Doesn't Mean No Construction in New Orleans

Despite sparse skyline, construction insiders say groundbreakings plentiful.

Shortly after Ed Blakely was appointed New Orleans' recovery chief in 2006, he promised the people of New Orleans that in a year they would see "cranes on the skyline. "

The statement conjured images of towering steel structures looming over the city's horizon as they constructed gleaming new buildings, ushering in a New Orleans renaissance.

Three years later, however, the skyline looks much the same as the day Blakely took office. Except for a handful of cranes at scattered projects such as the Louisiana Cancer Research Consortium, there are few to be found.

But just because there aren't cranes on the skyline doesn't mean there hasn't been progress, said Robert Boh, president of New Orleans-based Boh Bros. Construction.

"I understand people being frustrated with that statement. The image of cranes in the sky is most often associated with high-rise building construction, and there are very few of them around town," Boh said. "But there is other work going on that doesn't involve tower cranes. It was an unfortunate way to say it. "

Boh points to the $80 million Holy Cross High School project being handled by Broadmoor, a subsidiary of Boh.

"That's a huge project and would not have been possible except for recovery money coming from the federal government, and there are no cranes involved," he said. "And in a few weeks, a $75 million project at Orleans Parish Prison will be up for bid. There's work happening. "

Blakely would have been more accurate if he said to the people of New Orleans that they would soon see groundbreakings across the city instead of cranes on the skyline, said Robert Wooderson, president of New Orleans-based Gibbs Construction.

"I will give (Blakely) this: While his comment was ill timed and his words weren't well chosen, there has been a significant amount of construction work post-Katrina for the recovery to rebuild the greater metro area," Wooderson said. "There has been a large amount of multifamily reconstruction for apartment developments, both public and private, and infrastructure projects such as street work, levees and pumping stations. "

Current Gibbs projects include the reskinning of the Superdome, the B.W. Cooper public housing redevelopment, the second phase of the St. Bernard Civic Auditorium repair, and the design and construction of five new city libraries. Gibbs is also doing the $52.5 million project at 930 Poydras St., an eight-story parking garage and 14-story apartment building that at one point had a crane in the sky.

"There has been a tremendous amount of work accomplished over the last four years, but it has slowed over the last year both as a result of national economic downturn and the scare in the financial markets," Wooderson said.

There's also been a small crane at Xavier University this year for the $25 million expansion of the school's pharmacy building.

Nationally, the privately financed commercial construction industry has cratered, Boh said, and that has created a stampede of contractors into Louisiana looking to take advantage of the recovery projects. Gibbs Construction has received bids from subcontractors from all parts of the country including Michigan, Tennessee and Florida.

The influx of contractors has made the local construction market hyper-competitive, keeping the bid lists long and the prices low, Boh said.

"Regional contractors from other cities are looking into this market because of the recovery-funded projects of all flavors: public schools, city buildings, apartment buildings, the VA hospital," Boh said. "These are projects that when they happen will not only be a big deal here but regionally as well because they're happening for a reason that doesn't exist anywhere else. It's unbelievable how quickly in the past nine months the market has become incredibly competitive. "